Investigating An Illegal Diversion Of A Ship.

In February, 2002, I received a fax message from one of my clients in Singapore, he had appointed me to carryout an investigation to find the cause for the delay in arrival of a ship, under his charter, at Trincomalee.

The initial ETA had been 8.00 AM on the 10th of February but the vessel had arrived at 12.00 noon on the 11th of February, almost 28 hours later.  

I, along with my senior assistant, left for Trincomalee and arrived there around 0930 hours on the 12th. On boarding the vessel we went straight to the Master’s cabin, and found that the door was closed. When I knocked, a person opened the door and said “I am the Captain. Who are you? What do you want?”  I presented him my business card. He looked at it and asked me “What do you want, why are you here, what survey you got to do?” We were still standing at the entrance to his cabin. I said  “Captain, I am here on behalf of your Charterers to investigate the delayed arrival of your vessel at Trincomalee.”


He started to shout and in that tone he said “What bloody delayed arrival are you talking about? I have no news from Charterers about your attendance!” Then I showed him the fax. He refused to look at it.

Then he called his Chief Officer and told him “Chief, do not give any information to this person and do not show any log books or other documents, and tell Chief Engineer the same thing too.”

I waited there for a few minutes and asked him, “Captain, can I take a round on the deck?” He said  “OK, but do not wait for long” and shut the door.

It was very embarrassing, but I decided that I will only leave the ship with some results.

I went down with my assistant to the deck, and walked on the Starboard side towards the No 1 hatch. There I saw a young officer, wearing a blue overall and safety helmet. I assumed that it must have been the third or second officer, who usually does cargo watches. I went upto him and asked, “Are you the third officer?” He said “Yes.”

Then I asked him, “From where did this ship come, and where was this cargo loaded?”

He said, “At Makassar in Indonesia.”

I told him, “I have heard about it.  It’s supposed to be a nice place?”


At the same time, I saw two men,  both in orange colour overalls doing some work in one of the winches in Derrick No 1.

The third officer said “ Yes, yes, it was a nice place. You know, my bosun spent all his salary there.”

I asked, “What about you? Did you not go out and have a good time?”

He said “ I went, but there was not much time. I had to come back for duty.”

We continued our conversation.

I said “So it was bad news, a young guy like you could not enjoy after going to a such nice place. What happened afterwards? What was the next port after Makassar?”

He said “After that, we went to Singapore outer anchorage and waited for our Superintendent and some spares to arrive.”

I knew that I was getting somewhere.

While talking with the young third mate,  I managed to collect a great deal of information as to the diversion and stoppage at sea to complete the repairs to No. 1 Derrick winch. Although they had completed the repairs, it had started giving trouble this morning, and the Superintendent who was ready to leave the vessel, had to stay back.  

My assistant managed to take a few photographs of the repair work that was going on.

We got the necessary information, and I did not want to wait any longer onboard.

As we were walking towards the gangway, I saw the Captain waiting there. As we got closer he asked me “Oh, you are still here?” I said, “Yes, I have many friends because I come here very often” and I showed him the Head checker on duty from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

Now, he wanted to see the fax message and I showed it to him.

While handing it back to me he said, “Still I cannot give you any information as my owners have not granted me permission to do so.”

At this time I told the Captain, “It seems there is a misunderstanding somewhere, to my knowledge your owners are aware of my visit and the local agent confirmed that to me.”

I did not want to waste any time with him and said, “It is alright Captain, it was your decision not to even accept me to your cabin, leave aside giving us any information.” He just kept on staring at me as I was going down the gangway. 

As soon as I came ashore I gave a fax message to Singapore from the local agents office, giving  information about the illegal diversion and stoppage at sea. I also mentioned the Master’s attitude towards us and that the information obtained was very reliable.

Once we gave this kind of information, the rest of it, could be worked out.

As far as we were concerned we had done the job and later sent the photographs too.

Formed My Own Marine Survey Company

Two years later I resigned from the company I was working in and ventured into opening my own. It was a slow start but within about six months, I built up a fairly reasonable clientele. Most of our clients were from many parts of the world who had their ships calling at ports in Sri Lanka and India. 

I hired two individuals, as members of my staff whom I trained to assist me in different marine surveys. They were two young men who were educated and intelligent so they picked up the work fast. Most of the time, when there was work I went and started it for them and they followed up, and thankfully did very well.

The volume of work kept increasing and the need for assistants was essential. There were two college students who were looking for part-time work. My senior assistant who was in charge of administration, employed them to do mostly container work in the port of Colombo. With the remunerations they received, they were able to cover up their expenses as they both were from distant places.

I had to visit Australia to follow courses to re-validate my certificate as I had not sailed for some time. My staff took care of the work very well during this time, under the supervision of one of my contemporaries, also a Captain in the Merchant Navy. 

New Ventures

Following the bad experience I had on the earlier ship, I was fortunate to command two ships of better condition and management. After about two years, I decided to find work ashore and a Captain who had a marine survey company offered me a job. I gladly accepted it. 

I joined the company and started work as a trainee marine surveyor. I enjoyed the work very much. About six months later, I was made permanent and started to work as a marine surveyor. It was not an 8-5 job and as such, we had to be prepared to work anytime, any day. 

There was one job in particular that I remember to this day. I attended a ship that was brought in for repairs to the Colombo dry docks, on behalf of the owner's hull insurance. The vessel was damaged in way of the engine room on port side that had allegedly been caused by colliding with a fishing trawler in South Atlantic Ocean. I surveyed the vessel and recommended the necessary repairs.

I attended the same ship on behalf of the owner's protection and indemnity club.    

While doing this survey, I recommended that most of the ladders going up to the masts as well as most parts of the vessel's Christmas tree, be cropped and renewed because they were heavily corroded, making it unsafe for the crew to go up and down them. The dockyard engineer in charge of the repairs suggested the whole thing be cropped off. They cropped the Christmas tree of the ship and removed and placed it near the main office of the dockyard. 

It was Christmas time. One morning when I was in the dockyard, the manager met me and jokingly said, "Hey, you are a Christian aren't you? Why are you leaving it here without taking it home?" I replied, "Sir, unfortunately it is too big for my house. We'll have to find some other place." We exchanged some much needed pleasantries. 

Jokes aside, the manager thanked me for recommending it to be removed, for it would have anyway come off from its base or part of it under bad weather conditions. 
Image: Christmas Tree of A Ship

Vessel Heading For Final Destination

The vessel sailed from Dar-es-Salaam to Madagascar. During the voyage I found out from the Radio Officer that there was hardly any provisions for the crew. When I went to check the provisions store and the cold rooms, the provisions we had would have lasted only a week.

The Captain whom I helped, told me there was enough provisions to last a month and showed me proof of bills at the time of taking over command. It appears, however, that he had taken the money but had not actually ordered provisions prior to leaving the vessel. Now I was in great trouble.

When the vessel arrived in Mahajunga, Madagascar I put my own money and some from the Radio Officer and Chief Officer who were kind enough to offer their assistance, and went ashore to buy provisions which we estimated, according to the cook, to last three weeks.

Thereafter, there were a myriad of problems and I informed the owners that I needed to be relieved as soon as possible.

Finally, I told them, "Your ship cannot sail under these conditions." After I pressurized them, they did some temporary repairs to the hull and machinery and paid the crew their wages up to date.

I was glad when the owners finally decided to scrap the ship. After discharging the cargo we loaded in the Port of Mahajunga in Tuticorin, India, the vessel proceeded to a port in Iran and loaded Sulfur in bulk for Mumbai, India. As the cargo was being discharged, the owners sent some people to remove all good mooring ropes from the ship since upon completion in Mumbai, the vessel was headed to Mangalore, India to beach for demolition.

I advised them to keep at least four good mooring ropes, instead of taking them all. The end result was, while leaving the Mumbai harbor, the rope given to the tug parted as it was being pulled out of the dock. The ship went and contacted the pedestal of the gantry crane. The gantry started to shake, and due to this reason the lifting wire rope of the same parted from the top. There was a big damage. The ship was detained in the Port of Mumbai and the owners had to pay a very big amount as compensation.  

After all these episodes, the vessel finally proceeded to Mangalore and was beached for demolition.

I Went To An Unknown Destination

We returned to a warm Christmas spirit in Sri Lanka after having spent an enjoyable vacation in India. Christmas and New Year celebrations were wonderful to say the least, but now, it was time to get back to work. For me to get a re-appointment on my earlier ship I had to wait till about April. I couldn't wait that long and was on the hunt for a job.

It was around this time, a friend of mine, also a Captain, called and asked if I could take over command of a ship which they were managing, as the Captain currently onboard needed to return home as soon as possible to attend to an urgent domestic matter.

I agreed to take up the job and left Sri Lanka to join the ship in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. After I went on-aboard I realized that I had come to take over a ship in very bad condition, in every which way. The ship had no proper trading certificates and had a lot of administrative and mechanical problems. The crew had not received their wages for about four months and the main and auxiliary engines were in a dilapidated state. The Captain pleaded with me to help him by taking over command of the vessel, so that he could leave to attend to a very urgent family matter.

On the assurance given by the owners that the trading certificates would be put in order prior to departure from Dar-es-Salaam, and the crews wages will be paid as soon as possible, I agreed to take over command and relieve the Captain on-board.

Three days later, the valid trading certificates were placed on-board and I took command of the vessel.

My Vacation in Mumbai

Few days after I signed off the ship, We visited Mumbai. It was to spend a holiday there meeting my friends and teachers at Lal Bhadur Shastri Nautical & Engineering College. While we were in Bombay I visited Capt. Subramaniam and his family. When I was there he invited me for the passing out parade of the cadets of T.S. “Rajendra” and for lunch thereafter. At that time, he was the Captain Superintendent of the ship. I was privileged and honoured to be an invitee for such an important event.

T.S. (Training Ship) “Rajendra” was the training ship of that kind after the famous “Dufferin.” The cadets who passed out of those training ships were considered the cream of Indian Marine society and, there was no doubt about it. Merchant Navy cadets not only from India, but also from countries which includes, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Iran, etc. were also trained.

Many of the top people in the Sri Lankan shipping circle are also from the aforementioned training ships. The passing out parade was spectacular. There were many Extra Masters of India who attended the ceremony.

The Extra Master qualification is the highest qualification in Merchant Marine. With that qualification, one could work as a lecturer in a nautical college, an examiner or as a nautical surveyor. 


At lunch I was glad to meet many of these distinguished persons in the Indian Merchant Marine. Some of them had been my teachers while others had been my examiners. There was a very common question; Why did you go to Australia for your Masters???

I am forever grateful to the Government of India for educating us Sri Lankans and for not burdening us with heavy College fees. We were only charged a capitation fee of Indian Rupees five hundred, the only extra charged levied on us.

The Vessel Commenced Sailing Between Colombo and The North and East of Sri Lanka

Following the meeting, the Commissioner General of Essential Services chartered the vessel. Few days later we received instructions from the Company that we had to paint the Red Cross at three conspicuous places on the ship in keeping with the denotation of the International Red Cross.

Thereafter the ship was loaded with containers of foodstuff and essential items destined for Mullaitivu and Jaffna. In addition to the ship’s crew, I had two fork lift drivers, one mechanic and one helper from the Sri Lanka Ports Authority as well as a representative from the International Red Cross, a Frenchman.  Accommodation was never a problem as there was ample cabin space in the ship.

On completion of loading, the vessel sailed for Trincomalee. On arrival at Trincomalee, the ship was further loaded with containers stuffed with bagged wheat flour. We left Trincomalee and arrived in Mullaitivu, the morning of July 31st.

Few hours after the vessel anchored off Mullaitivu, we saw a small boat approaching. When it came alongside, we saw one priest and three others.  One of the officers met them at the gangway and brought them up to the bridge. I greeted them and immediately arranged for some soft drinks. After making himself comfortable, the priest, a Catholic, introduced himself as Rev Fr. Stalin - the Parish Priest of Mullaitivu church. As I was talking to them, he said that since they were Tamils, he and his men were afraid to come on board as we were all Sinhalese. He further said he never expected this sought of treatment. I said to him, “Father, I have 24 Sinhalese on board and you will know of us, our thoughts and attitude during this brief encounter. We are not for war. Unfortunately, there is a certain group in the North and East who have created this situation and we are at the receiving end of all these selfish and self-centred actions of those people.” 

The charter continued for about six months. I was so glad; my crew and I were able to help at a personal level, those whom we met in Mullaitivu, Point Pedro and in Delft Island.

Carrying Essential Food Items To The North And East Of Sri Lanka

My ship was in Colombo, after towing a disabled Maldivian vessel which was drifting at sea about 120 miles South East of the port of Colombo. It was during the South West monsoons and the weather was very rough. I remember when we approached and got closer to the vessel, first we checked with the Master if there were any sick people on board. Fortunately, there weren't any sick people but they needed fresh water and food. Thankfully, we were able to supply some fresh water through a small flexible pipe, and transfer some food. The towline was then connected and the vessel was brought safely to the port of Colombo. It was a good operation; rescuing life at sea.

Around the same time, when the ethnic war erupted in July of 1990, all communication and transport to the North of Sri Lanka came to a stand still. This created a situation in the North and in some parts of the East of Sri Lanka where the Government had no way of sending foodstuff and essentials. People living in those areas had the wolf at their doors.

It was around this time that the Department of Essential services which came under purview of the Ministry of Social Services had approached our Company seeking help to transport foodstuff and essential items to the North.

I remember, one day a few Government officials including the Commissioner General of Essential Services came onboard. While talking with me he asked if my crew and I were agreeable to go to the North with some essential items. He further asked if I would ask for an extra allowance for going into an area considered to be dangerous due to the ongoing war. I told him that I was ready but I have to check with my crew and would let him know. He requested for an answer immediately, if possible.

The total number of officers and ratings onboard at that time was about 19. All 19 persons were Sinhalese. While all government officials and our company directors waited in my cabin, I went down and had a meeting with all my officers and crew - they all were ready to go to the North and declined any extra payment. This was conveyed to all who were waiting in my cabin. They left the vessel with a lot of regard for us.

First Command

When I was waiting to meet the Director of Operations at Sri Lanka Shipping Company, I was thinking to myself, well if it is another ship to the Company then I do not have to go job hunting. Most definitely I will get a job as Chief Officer. By this time I had already had five years of experience as the Chief Officer with the company.  Since I had just obtained my Masters certificate I did not have any experience of being in command of a vessel and as a result the chances of me being given the opportunity were rather slim. 

It was almost closing time, when I finally saw all the people who were at the meeting walking out of the board room. The Director of Operations called me and he said “ John, there is good news for us and for you!” “The good news for us is that we decided to go in for a multipurpose vessel and take it over in Singapore in May." "The good news for you is that we have decided to give you command of that vessel.” It was news that I never expected. I thanked God and thanked him from the bottom of my heart.  

He further said, “Be prepared to leave around the 14th of May and be touch with my secretary for further details. I will meet you for a briefing before that, and I will let you know in a day or two.”

God has always been so good!

I immediately called my wife and conveyed the best news that I could possibly have had in my life. She was very happy to hear about it. Soon after, I called my mother and gave the news. That night I invited few close friends and had a small celebration at a Restaurant in Colombo. 

On May 16th, I, along with the superintendent and few other crew members left for Singapore to take over the new vessel.

Job Hunting

After arriving in Sri Lanka, and taking a short break, I decided to send in a few applications to find a job at sea.  This was around the first week of May. My sister-in-law helped me in preparing an application using her office computer although I still was not sure to which Shipping Companies I ought to send my application. However, I made sure that my very first application was submitted to Sri Lanka Shipping Company. I met with the Director Operations and, handed over my application personally to him. I was always very confident that he will help me, somehow or the other.

Few days later, I visited a friend of mine at his office - an ex-Captain whom I had sailed with.  While I was chatting and having some tea with him, my wife called me and said there was a call from the secretary of Sri Lanka Shipping Company who had requested I meet with the Director of Operations this afternoon. Following that message, I immediately returned home and called the secretary to find out the time of my appointment. She said that I ought to come around 2.00 p.m.

I was there well before that time. When I informed the secretary that I was going to be in the waiting area she said, “There is a board meeting going on, it was stopped for lunch and resumed only about fifteen minutes ago, so please wait.” I said “OK” and went and sat with the Operations Manager, who was a very senior member of the staff. I am not a stranger to the Office or to the Company, as such I was very well treated whenever I visited them.    

While talking with me, the secretary mentioned that the Company is going to buy a multipurpose vessel and the meeting could be to take a final decision on that matter.